Travelers arriving early at O'Hare despite improvements in TSA lines
Extra employees appeared to be making a dent in long security lines at O'Hare International Airport Friday, but passengers are still wary.
"I was so worried last night I couldn't sleep," said Gary Vien, a former Des Plaines resident. "I had a bad dream that the line was all the way out to the parking lot."
After Transportation Security Administration staffing shortages caused egregious delays and thousands of missed flights at airports nationwide, Congress shifted $34 million to the beleaguered agency. For Chicago's airports that means a majority of 58 promised TSA officers have been deployed as of Friday and 170 part-timers have agreed to switch to full-time, TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said. Eight more bomb-sniffing dogs are working at O'Hare, also.
Passengers moved quickly through TSA checkpoints midmorning at O'Hare although delays of 30 minutes at Terminal 3 occurred earlier. Authorities still advised people to arrive two to three hours before their flights given a high volume of Memorial Day weekend travel expected.
Back on May 15, security checkpoint waits surpassed 2½ hours, resulting in 795 people missing American Airlines flights alone in Chicago.
The outrage from airlines and passengers got the ear of federal and local politicians who brought TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger to O'Hare May 19. He promised to deploy 58 more TSA officers by early June, shift part-timers to full-time and add 250 more screeners in August at Chicago airports.
As of Wednesday, waits at peak times averaged 42 minutes at O'Hare and 44 minutes at Midway, the Chicago Department of Aviation reported. That represented a 60 percent drop at O'Hare and 32 percent decrease compared to early May.
Travelers were still giving themselves plenty of time.
"It's such a busy travel day I expected insanity," said Sydney Rais-Sherman of Charlotte. "I'm really relieved."
Vien, a Chicagoan flying to Minneapolis, was in the terminal at 10 a.m. for a 1:30 p.m. departure. "I'm shocked," he said. "You never know what's going to happen."
Vien thinks improvements in wait times will continue because "there's enough people complaining. Things will happen ... they just need to find some money."
Illinois Sens. Mark Kirk and Dick Durbin said a bill making its way through Congress could add 1,344 screeners and 50 more bomb-sniffing dogs across the U.S.
The legislation also seeks to increase hours and locations for PreCheck, a program that expedites security for trusted travelers. Currently, people trying to enroll in PreCheck in Chicago have to wait at least 45 days and some end up being turned away when offices close, Durbin said.
Kirk said he would hold Neffenger accountable if travelers missed flights over the Memorial Day weekend.
Staffing at O'Hare decreased from more than 2,000 employees in 2012 to 1,932 in 2015. At Midway, the tally was 471 TSA staff members in 2015 compared to nearly 600 in 2005, the TSA reports.